Monday, September 5, 2011

Junction Creek Loop

Friday's forecast was somewhat improved with only 30% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. I really wanted to do a Telluride/Ophir loop on this trip, but legs and weather were too iffy to risk it. Instead, I opted for a slight variant of a ride I did a couple years go: Junction Creek.

This ride is a quintessential Hill Junkie ride. A 4000ft climb on dirt FS-171 right from town takes you to the upper trail head of the section of the Colorado Trail called Junction Creek. 20+ miles up, then 20 miles all singletrack down. Except it is not all down. Somehow I always seem to forget the climby bits on these epic descents. On the way down, one climbing section involved nearly 1000ft gain with a bunch of hike-a-bike. The descent can be quite bony and steep in spots too.

The day and climbing started off nicely.

I started riding quite early, since I didn't have to drive to this trail head. I soon realized that some of the previous night's spicy Mexican food was not going to wait until I got back from the ride. Thank goodness there was a pit stop at about 9000ft by the Animas Lookout on FS-171. Pine needles would have made for nasty toilet paper.

I plodded along on the dirt road climb at light to moderately aerobic pace. Progress seemed slow, but later when I checked my climbing time from 2009, I was within a minute and started several blocks further away, so not any slower than 2009.

Approaching the upper trail head, there was a horse camp. A large tent, trailers, even a small electric fenced in corral. There were also a few border collies there. The horses were tethered to the trailers right along side the jeep road. All the animals went berserk as I went by. The collies would have none of it, as clearly I was loose and should not be escaping. Despite screaming from the owners, one dog was intent on not letting me ride away. He grabbed a hold of my heel while I was pedalling. Glad cycling shoes have stout heel cups. My mother later asked me "weren't you terrified?" Nope. I've lived near border collies for many years in Michigan. They are not mean but can appear menacing when giving chase. I shrugged the incident off. Dogs should be allowed to run free at 10,000ft and 20 miles from the nearest house.

One of many views heading up FS-171. Probably above 10,000ft here.

I realized I had eaten nothing during the 2.5hr climb and drank only one water bottle. Yeah, that's right. Water bottles. When preparing my Camelbak in the morning, the tube attachment area burst just as I was heading out the door. Stickiness all over my chamois and hotel room floor was the result. I scrounged up four bottles in the room, two of them small airport bottles with screw caps. That was less water than I anticipated needing but the best I could do. Four bottles stuffed in a Camelbak makes for a lumpy, uncomfortable backpack. I had no cage to put on the frame.

I began the singletrack descent. It starts out with a lot of up and down. It felt more up than down, actually. Eventually it starts dropping earnestly into the Junction Creek gorge with a vengeance. I hoped the new pads I put on held up.

Exposure. Note trail at bottom of gully in lower left of image
amost 100ft straight down. A slip over the edge here would ruin
your ride.

Besides the climbing on the descent, the other thing I forgot about this descent was how exposed it was. I'd say 50% of the upper half is highly exposed. A fall in these areas could easily result in sudden death. Drops of 100ft or more were everywhere, and the trail was very narrow. Great care had to be taken to not clip a rock with the uphill side pedal, resulting in a immediate launch over the edge. The exposure was so persistent, I got used to it after a while. Probably not a good thing. Considerable focus was needed riding this trail.

The falls on Junction Creek trail. Just a trickle today.

After crossing the bridge over Junction Creek, the big climb brought me back up to about 9600ft elevation. There were sections greater than 20% grade that my sea level hematocrit could not ride. So far, the weather was holding up. Rain would be a disaster, as there is only one way back down to town. The soil here had a red clay base. A few areas were still a bit greasy from rain presumably the evening before.

While climbing at about 3.5mph, something suddenly started crashing through the brush just to my right. It was a black bear! Crap, was he close. Fortunately he heard me first and started bolting uphill. It was a near shear drop to my left. My only escape route would have been on skinny trail steeply up in the direction I was going or to stop, dismount, and point my bike back down. If I had to do either, I would have been bear bait.

On Wednesday's rainy ride, I passed two female hikers early in the ride. They commented how quiet I was and that they didn't even hear me coming. I said "that's scary, bears won't hear me coming either." That's one of the risks riding alone and not wearing a bell. Does anybody even wear bells in Colorado, or is that just an Alaska thing?

From the intermediate high point of Junction Creek, there are miles and miles of high speed bombing. It looked like an old logging road with narrow ribbon of singletrack down it. I feared it wouldn't lead back to town and I had to climb back up it. People drop down the wrong side of ridge lines all the time out here and need rescue.  The trail went more south than east and had me worried for a bit. Eventually I reached the junction with Dry Creek trail. In 2009, I took Dry Creek, then Hoffheins trail back up to the Colorado Trail. This time I wanted to stay on the CT to minimize climbing, but I really didn't know what this few miles section would entail.

It turned out this section nicely contoured for a while before beginning more high-speed descending. Lots of waterbars and rocky chicanes required attention. My water was nearly gone when I finally reached Gudy's Rest, a nice viewpoint before beginning a serious set of switchbacks down the gorge wall. I encountered other riders and hikers in this area. During the rest of my descent, I encountered only a solitary backpacker.

I was happy to reach FS-171 again without rain or any serious mishaps. The cumulus clouds were getting darker on the bottoms. It was a 4-5mi gradual downhill back into town on dirt and paved road. Not more than two minutes after getting back to the hotel, thunder broke out with rain. I had to pack my bike up under the hotel lobby car port. I just nicely had enough time to box it up and drop it off at FedEx on the other side of town.

This loop went 48 miles with upwards of 6000ft of climbing in 5.3hrs moving time. It max's out around 10,600ft and does not go above treeline, but there are nice views on the upper portions of the road climb.
That's it for Colorado this year. Over 30 hours of moving time in 6 days destoyed me. That is probably a record amount of riding for me. I hit many new trails in Cortez, Salida and Horse Gulch in Durango.  DaveP has been to Colorado with me. Need to get him and Alex out here next year, maybe go a week or two later in hopes of slightly cooler weather and less risk of afternoon thunderstorms. Need some of those afternoon hours to get 5-6hr rides in, you know...


Alby King said...

Funny that - just bought a bear bell.. You know, "just in case. Our paths may cross some day out and around T-ride. We get out there every few years.

Also, curious how Fedex works out. I had a rough experience with UPS.

Hill Junkie said...

So far, FedEx has perfect track record for me. On-time delivery (which is not guaranteed for ground shipment) and zero damage.

The local UPS center here in Nashua discouraged me from shipping my bike with them. They said they get way too many damage claims. Their rates are way higher too.

Since you can ship to most FedEx Office stores now where they will hold ground shipments for you to pick up (some even 24hrs!), it is the way to go in my opinion. I could have flown with my bike on Southwest for slightly cheaper (FedEx was just over $50 each way), but risk of TSA not repacking box preperly just isn't worth it.

Jonny Bold said...

Well done sir!